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Peace, Love, and Hip Hop at Kunming’s CLUB ICON

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Point & Shoot Perspectives is a guest column by Tea Haus, centered around point-and-shoot club photography and interviews with everyday Chinese clubgoers.

Tucked right along the waterfront of Kunming’s Cui Hu Park, CLUB ICON is a particularly small establishment. With two floors at capacity, the club fits at most about a hundred people, and even with half that number the place feels cramped. But make no mistake: CLUB ICON has all the trappings of your typical Chinese night club, with plenty of tables for rent and champagne being passed around.

The club’s most distinct feature is a small stage surrounding the DJ table in the corner — it’s the first thing you notice upon entering. At any given point throughout the night, there will be at least half a dozen men standing on the stage, waving their fists and bobbing their heads to the music.

The music is the other thing you’ll notice. It’s a bit more RapCaviar than it is Top 40, but still with the traces of EDM and house that are present in any commercial party space. The fashion, accordingly, is predominantly streetwear and chains. The body movement is decidedly hip hop.

On this night in particular, there is a steady anxiety coursing through the club. Word has gotten out to the locals that the Higher Brothers are there, celebrating after the final show of the Asia leg in their 2019 world tour. Even as clubgoers push upstairs to catch a glimpse of the rappers, the first floor remains busy as people filter in and out.

After I wander around for a while, one person on stage in particular catches my eye. It seemed as though he’d been “performing” for the crowd the entire night, holding up an imaginary microphone as he gestured along with each song. I approach him and ask if he is a rapper, and he immediately jumps down to say yes — he’s been rapping for a couple years now. As I exit the club, I bump into another interesting character in the crowd of fans hoping to catch a glimpse of Higher Brothers one last time before they leave: a rather talkative college student who I spoke with briefly in line for the show.

I caught up with each subject over WeChat the next week to dig deeper into their thoughts on Kunming’s hip hop culture.

陈鑫 / JUMPMAN

I am a rapper from Kunming, Yunnan. I have a crew called MIHC 黄鬼制燥. I usually just make music, and I also opened a streetwear store with my friends.

What brought you to CLUB ICON? Who were you with? Do you go there often?

I wanted to go because ICON is the first club in Kunming that will put on hip hop music. Another thing is that I heard that the Higher Brothers were there, and I like them a lot. Usually when I have time I’ll go — last time was with my bros (crew members) and some good friends. I don’t go too often, because I spend more time in the studio making music or in the store selling clothes.

First off, this club plays some of my favorite music. I think this is a very important thing. Another thing is I can go on the stage as I please and try performing to practice my stage presence. Those are my favorite aspects.

How did you first get into hip hop? What attracted you to it?

I started doing hip hop about three years ago. I started listening to it about five years ago. What I’m doing currently began about a year ago when my bro and I rented a studio together. He had some experience before and took me to perform at a show.

What attracts me the most about hip hop music is its sense of rhythm. It’s a kind of music where you can sing out your deepest emotions and passions. Whether good or bad, you can express your emotions clearly.

What is the hardest part about doing hip hop? What is the most rewarding?

The most difficult thing about doing hip hop is sticking with it. I feel like as long as I persist, I will succeed. Also, you need direction, your aesthetic judgement needs to be good enough, and you need to know how to perfectly integrate your voice with the accompaniment to achieve the right feeling. I think the first thing you hear in hip hop is the type of feeling, and then you look at the meaning of the lyrics.

I think the most rewarding things are very simple. Something I make that I truly want to make — that is what’s most meaningful.

What is the value of hip hop to greater society?

Its greatest value to society is that it motivates more people to fight for their dreams and the things they want, but it does not challenge the status quo. That’s my personal opinion.

Where is hip hop culture now? Where is it headed?

I think that the current hip hop culture is definitely [stronger] abroad. Because this thing was originally transferred over from there to Asia: Japan, Vietnam, Korea, China, and various places. I think they all have hip hop culture. As I understand it, the direction it’s headed is “all the way up” 👆 haha.

What is the hip hop scene like in Kunming? Is there anything about Kunming hip hop that most people don’t know?

Hip hop in Kunming is not as easily accepted as it is in Chengdu, Shanghai, Xi’an, etc. But it’s already gotten a lot better in the past couple of years. There are already a lot of people who are willing to come watch our shows, from just a few in the beginning to dozens or even a couple hundred people now. I believe that in a few years we’ll have a very good atmosphere. Most of us do more southern trap and new wave.

Is there anything else you want to say?

The last thing I want to say is to support hip hop culture. Even if you don’t like it, don’t hate. Stick to your dreams and make what you want to make. Our lives are so short — if you don’t go all out when you’re young, you will definitely regret it later.

Finally, thank you guys for interviewing me. Thank you for supporting and helping hip hop culture. Thank you for everything you have done. Peace and love.

解博伦 / TDK

I’m currently still a student. Usually, I just listen to music. In terms of interests… I guess DJing. Because I was actually exposed to hip hop through electronic music.

What brought you to CLUB ICON? Who were you with? Do you go there often?

Actually, I went to CLUB ICON just because my friend said that Higher Brothers were there. We just so happened to be skating around Cui Hu Park, so we decided to take a chance and check it out. I didn’t expect to really meet them! I don’t go very often, especially to this type of more commercial club.

I’m not very interested in typical nightclubs. In most cases, I’ll get tickets to go only when a club invites a DJ I like. I’m not as familiar with CLUB ICON because I rarely go, but I do know that it plays hip hop music. Kunming has quite a lot of underground clubs, and some livehouse activities are more attractive to me than the average nightclub. Typical clubs put on big-room-house-type music. I’m sick of that type of music.

How did you first get into hip-hop? What attracted you to it?

Actually, how I got into hip hop is a pretty interesting story. When I was in junior high, I randomly heard Beijing OG In3 (阴三儿)’s track “Hello Teacher”. It’s hard to describe the shock the song gave me — there was cussing in every sentence, but they also all made sense. Because of rap, I came into contact with hip hop culture, started skateboarding, started listening to In3, Yin Ts’ang, GorDoN (国蛋), MC Hotdog, Soft Lipa, Dwagie, Manchuker (AP满人)… up until the Ministry of Culture blocked In3.

How it attracted me is actually very simple: it’s different from other cultures! At the time, I was going through puberty, a period of rebellion. The swearing in the lyrics also attracted me. The song I remember most clearly is MC HotDog’s “韩流来袭.”

Related:

The History of Rap in China, Part 1: Early Roots and Iron Mics (1993-2009)

As a student, where do you see yourself in hip hop? Does it speak to you a certain way?

I am very happy that I was exposed to hip hop during my time as a student, before hip hop blew up [in China]. I saw the most authentic side of Chinese hip hop — LOVE and PEACE! I have always seen hip hop as underground, because the origin of hip hop comes from the streets. But it’s also full of peace and love.

[Hip hop] has always been communicating with me, not just in the form of rap. Last year, my favorite song was MC法老FALAO’s “采访.” There is a line in it which I can say represents my view of hip-hop: “粗鲁的歌词正能量的背后” [behind crude lyrics is positive energy].

How do you and your friends engage with hip hop? What does it mean to you guys?

My friends were also exposed to hip hop culture through skateboarding or rap. In our spare time, we also write songs and make beats. Hip hop has actually already changed our way of life, and the best way to engage with hip hop is just to let hip hop enter your life. Once your life is filled with hip hop, it is no longer a hobby for you.

What is the hip hop scene like in Kunming? Is there anything about Kunming hip hop that most people don’t know?

Kunming’s hip hop is actually quite “peaceful,” and many styles coexist. From old school to emo, there are plenty of excellent rappers. Yunnan hip hop is truly incredible in all aspects, from the street to the business. I have seen people wearing suits on the subway listening to [Yunnan rap crew] 滇声气, and I have also seen skateboarders at the park put down their board and just freestyle.

Yunnan-dialect rap is really special — my personal opinion is that it has more character than Sichuan dialect

Also, Yunnan-dialect rap is really special — my personal opinion is that it has more character than Sichuan dialect, hahaha. Yunnan’s older generation rappers — from 大锅菜 to 滇声气 — all rap in dialect. It has accompanied me since I first started listening to hip hop. Of course, when it’s time for peace, there’s peace, but when there’s the smell of gunpowder, it’s bound to blow up!

You might also like:

The Chinese Rap Wrap: Yunnanese Cyphers, Dwyane Wade Tributes, and Higher Brothers Worldwide

City Mix: Heady Brew from Chengdu

The History of Rap in China, Part 2: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2019)

Tea Haus
    Tea Haus is an independent creative media agency specializing in Asian anthropology. Conceived in New York during the summer of 2018, we pride ourselves in our diligent fieldwork and candid, compelling visual storytelling. Instagram: @tea.haus

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